6 crucial tips for surviving heatwaves at home

These tips can help people shelter in place and assess their health in dangerous heat


In meteorological terms, heatwaves are undefined in terms of specific temperature and duration, but generally, heatwaves consist of long periods of high temperature, usually accompanied by high humidity.

Heatwaves are responsible for hundreds of deaths each year in the United States, and the numbers continue to rise. Researchers looked at data from heatwaves in Chicago, Illinois, in 1995 that killed 740, Paris that killed 4,870 and Moscow that killed 10,860 and found that the biggest factor is how much access people have to air conditioners, fans and cooling centers than can help them keep at safe body temperatures.

In the U.S., nearly every area of the country is prone to experiencing heatwaves, and as such, there is a uniform need for people to be are prepared. In California, the population is experiencing 83 percent more extreme-heat days, joining more than a dozen other states who are seeing higher temperatures than previously recorded between 1961 and 1990. These tips, from resources like the Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency, can help save residents’ lives when heatwaves strike, and they can’t get to a cooling center.

#1 Prepare for Heatwaves in Advance

You can’t prepare for every eventuality when it comes to high heat, but you can do as much as possible to limit your exposure.

  • Get your AC checked. You don’t want to find that your air conditioner isn’t working the day the temperature climbs to 101 degrees. Be proactive -- do a check of your unit before the weather turns warm, giving you ample time to schedule a technician in advance of potential heatwave.
  • Seal your home. Leaks are the most common culprit of a house that won’t stay cool, so seal up any gaps in windows, doors and other foundation problems. The effort will go a long way in keeping temperatures bearable inside.
  • Check your filters. For best results, the filters for all of your cooling units should be cleaned and replaced every 30 to 90 days. If you think your unit isn’t cooling properly, check the filter as a first step.

#2 Know the Signs of Heat-Related Illnesses

During heatwaves, it’s important to be aware of any signs of heat distress, and know what to do if you or someone else begins exhibiting symptoms. Knowing when to call for medical help -- before heat stroke incapacitates you or a member of your household -- is critical.

Heat Exhaustion

People experiencing heat exhaustion could experience heavy sweating, clammy skin, fast or weak pulse, vomiting, muscle cramps, weakness, dizziness or fainting.

To combat the symptoms of heat exhaustion, you should:

  • Move to a cool location
  • Loosen your clothes
  • Take a cool bath, or place cold cloths on your body
  • Slowly sip water

Heat Stroke

When people are experiencing a heat stroke, their body temperatures rises to 103 degrees or higher, their skin becomes hot, red, dry or damp, their pulse runs fast, and they may experience headaches, dizziness, nausea, confusion or lose consciousness.

Heat stroke constitutes a medical emergency, so you should call 911 right away if you suspect someone is exhibiting symptoms.

  • Move them to a cool location
  • Place cool cloths on their skin
  • But, do not allow them to drink anything

#3 Stick with Cool, Easy Foods During Heatwaves

During the winter months, using the oven or stove can often fog up the house windows due to the heat inside contrasting with the cold glass. That same heat exists during the summer months, and can make the inside of a home unbearable.

Try to avoid using the stove or oven during the day, and if necessary, use alternative cooking techniques when possible, such as crockpots, microwaves or toaster ovens. These small appliances put off limited heat cooking items.

Chilled food is also a great way to maintain a comfortable body temperature. Recipes for cold salads, fruit platters, lunch meat sandwiches and other quick and easy meals will prevent you from heating up the house with the oven.

#4 Have Emergency Supplies Ready for Evacuation

Residents should be prepared, particularly the elderly and those with small children, to leave their home if the temperature becomes too hot. Heatwaves can tax electric utilities and may result in rolling blackouts, and air conditioning units can break, making it difficult to stay cool at home.

Heatwave go-bags should contain:

  • A week’s worth of clean clothes
  • Food and water for everyone evacuating
  • Any needed medication

During expected heatwaves, check on your vulnerable family members and neighbors to ensure their safety and offer assistance.

#5 Drink More Water During Heatwaves

During a heatwave, your body needs more water to prevent it from becoming dehydrated, so stock up on chilled bottled water. Make sure pets have adequate amounts of drinking water each day, and check to make sure they’re hydrating.

The Mayo Clinic recommends that men drink 3.7 liters of water per day and women drink 2. 7 liters per day to maintain hydration. During heatwaves, it’s important to be aware of your water intake; a dry mouth and thirst are the body’s last warning signs of dehydration.

Children often don’t realize they’re dehydrated until it becomes an emergency, so encourage little ones to drink water often throughout the day. This can help prevent heat stress.

#6 Set the Thermostat at an Ideal Temperature

Constantly adjusting the thermostat in your home makes it difficult to maintain, despite concerns about energy use. Though many believe that raising the temperature and using the cooling system less during the day when no one is home saves money, the amount of energy used to cool the house at the end of the day from a higher temperature negates any savings and puts strain on your unit.

Set the thermostat in your home at a moderate temperature, between 75 and 78 degrees, and resist the urge to adjust it. Utilize other cooling mechanisms, such as box or ceiling fans to circulate air, rather than lower the temperature.

Cooling Centers & Knocking on Doors

Cities designating cooling centers at senior centers, community centers, parks and recreation sites and at public buildings should post a list of designated cooling center locations on websites and social channels, as well as share the information with local electric utilities and electric companies.

However, sometimes getting the word out by usual, and increasingly digital, means does not reach the residents most vulnerable to heat-related illness. During a 2012 heatwave and a series of power outages in Ohio, Federal Emergency Management Agency worked with state and local partners on a “Knock & Talk” mission that sent the National Guard going door-to-door to provide information on public health and cooling center resources. Local emergency management teams may be able to coordinate appropriate volunteers to inform vulnerable residents. In 2015, the St. Charles County Ambulance District used a grant to launch a door-to-door heat awareness campaign and check in on senior citizens.

Rachel Engel is an award-winning journalist and the senior editor of FireRescue1.com and EMS1.com. In addition to her regular editing duties, Engel seeks to tell the heroic, human stories of first responders and the importance of their work. She earned her bachelor’s degree in communications from Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, and began her career as a freelance writer, focusing on government and military issues. Engel joined Lexipol in 2015 and has since reported on issues related to public safety. Engel lives in Wichita, Kansas. She can be reached via email.